Along with the Cowboys head coach question comes this interesting subplot: will Dallas abandon the 3-4 defense? Jerry Jones stated his pledge to remain a 3-4 team post-Parcells earlier this season. But lately, he's been more ambiguous about his answer to that question, even going as far as suggesting some of the roster might be better suited to the 4-3. That sounds like a rationalization in case they do change to the 4-3. Really, when you're talking about the 3-4 vs. the 4-3, you're only talking about the front seven. Bill Parcells spent three first round picks, a 4th round pick, and acquired two free agents - all on the defensive front seven - all in an effort to run the 3-4 defense. Now I'm asked to believe that Parcells didn't know what he was doing and those guys were actually better suited to a 4-3 defense? I'm sorry, I just can't buy that. That supposes Parcells had no idea as to what he was doing, was a poor evaluator of talent, and really didn't understand the 3-4 scheme. Think about it.
Now, that doesn't mean that this defense couldn't play well as a 4-3 defense, although they would need to change out some of the personnel. But a new coordinator, with a new philosophy, might be able to make a 4-3 that is dominant. Perhaps a fresh approach with a new voice calling the defenses is what the team needs. There are plenty of reasons why a defense might work or not work, no matter what scheme they're running. The intricacies of things beyond just visible talent are very hard to discern. Sometimes a collection of talent underachieves, or a lunch-pail defense overachieves.
I've stated before that Parcells' very conservative version of the 3-4 is predicated almost exclusively on players excelling in their pre-defined roles, there's not going to be a lot of surprising the offense. With this particular set of defensive players, it worked for a good part of the season. Let's not forget how good this defense was earlier this year. I can't explain their collapse in December. The only thing I can throw out there is that with the loss of Greg Ellis, teams knew if they took care of DeMarcus Ware, they could protect their QB. That was the point when the Cowboys needed to start mixing things up, but Parcells/Zimmer didn't really adjust.
Back to the point, it's all about the front seven when you talk about the 3-4/4-3 debate. So I'll do my best guess as to how they each of the main players would fare in both schemes.
DE's - Chris Canty is the guy I would really worry about. As a 3-4 end, he's the prototype in body, 6-7 and 300 lbs is just what you want. His tall frame and long arms allow him to control space, cover his two-gap responsibility, but he is mobile enough to move laterally along the line of scrimmage to the outside. One thing he hasn't showed so far is the ability to get to the QB. As a 4-3 end, that would be a requirement to take pressure off DeMarcus Ware at the other end, and I don't know if he's capable. The other choice is to move him inside, but he's 6-7, that's tall for a position where part of your responsibilities consist of getting leverage underneath guards and centers and pushing the interior back. I can see chop blocks routinely at his knees, and his long arms and height work against him in the interior. You'd rather have shorter, more compact bodies, with tree trunks for thighs.
On the other end, Marcus Spears looks like a possibility to move inside to DT because he's definitely not suited to the DE position in the 4-3. But I worry about his toughness in there. As last season rolled along, he became less and less stout against the run, and was getting knocked off the line too often. He has the body-type, it's possible he could play the 3-technique and try to shoot the gaps, but at some point in the middle you have to be able to take on a block and stand your ground. I'm actually worried that Spears might not be a front-line player, but a rotation guy. He needs to prove himself.
NT - Jason Ferguson. I'm not worried about Ferguson, you can play him in either defense and I'm convinced he will play well.
ROLB - Here's the biggest question. DeMarcus Ware is currently one of the best 3-4 OLB's in the game. He is ideally suited to that position. He excels at rushing the passer, is quick and agile enough to drop into coverage, and he's improving against the run. At 6-4 and 255 lbs., his size and speed are the prototype of the ROLB in a 3-4. But how would that equate to lining up with his hand down on the ground as a 4-3 end? How will he handle the 16-game schedule lining up over 300+ lb left tackles, and more than the occasional 260 lb TE? And how would he handle the run playing in that position, which isn't his greatest strength? Sure Charles Haley did it and Jason Taylor does it, but those guys are the exception, not the rule. You already know that Ware is elite as an OLB in the 3-4, its questionable how he would do as a DE in the 4-3. My guess is that he could succeed in either because he's such a special athlete, but I think his skills are maximized in a 3-4, especially if a coach moves him around and gives him a little more freedom.
LOLB - Greg Ellis is a wild-card because his injury could make any conversation about him moot. If he is healthy and able to return to form, and that's a big if, he's equally adept at either scheme. Of course he can play the end in a 4-3, and last year showed he can handle, even excel, as an OLB in the 3-4 defense. He was on pace to match his career-high in sacks before the injury. His replacement, Bobby Carpenter, is a big linebacker, and showed some potential. I don't know which defense he's better suited to, I haven't seen him play enough, but from the little I've seen and watching him in college, I think he could play both. But I believe you would also maximize his skills as an OLB in the 3-4, because he does have size and agility, and flashed the skills needed to rush the QB. I think all he is lacking is playing time and added strength until he becomes a threat as a 3-4 OLB.
SILB - Bradie James has the same problems in both schemes, his inability to cover RB's and TE's. He has the size for both schemes and he does make tackles, but he gets exposed in the passing game. I don't think scheme is the answer for him; an offseason of extensive work in pass coverage is what he needs.
WILB - Akin Ayodele is like Ferguson, he works in both schemes.
Jason Hatcher - Another player who has the body-type coveted for a 3-4 end. But he's shown flashes that he can get to the passer, and he did that in the nickel from a 4-3 end alignment. So his versatility seems greater than Canty's, who hasn't shown he can get to the QB regularly. If the Cowboys go 4-3, he might be the best option to operate opposite Ware, although Greg Ellis' status would have an effect on that scenario. Hatcher would need to show he has the agility to contain bootlegs, move laterally along the line against the run, and contain other plays that would challenge his speed and quickness as a 4-3 DE who has more than just pass rush responsibilities. Remember, in the nickel he was only asked to get to the passer, there's more to it than just that.
Jay Ratliff - He could easily plug into the 4-3 defense as a DT. He would challenge Spears for a starting spot
Kenyon Coleman - Another player probably more suited to DE in a 3-4 defense than anything else.
Kevin Burnett - So far, Burnett has yet to find a home in the 3-4 other than nickel ILB where he is expected to play pass coverage. It's unclear what he's best suited for.
If I had to guess at the best lineup - from our current personnel - for a 4-3 defense, it would be this:
DE - DeMarcus Ware
DT - Jason Ferguson
DT - Jay Ratliff
DE - Greg Ellis/Jason Hatcher (depending on Ellis' recovery)
OLB - Akin Ayodele
MLB - Bradie James
OLB - Bobby Carpenter
When I look at that, it doesn't make me too nervous, although I don't think it maximizes the talent we have at those positions. Then again, I like the 3-4 defense, it's my preferred scheme. Maybe that's clouding my judgment, but I think this team, as constructed, is more of a 3-4 team. With some adjustments and added personnel, the 4-3 could work. But I favor building on the investment we've made, and adding a more aggressive style that utilizes DeMarcus Ware more creatively.